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Book Review: A Stone of Hope: A Memoir
From Foster Care to Success
Alexus Colbert
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Jim St. Germain moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, from Haiti when he was 10. As recounted in his memoir, A Stone of Hope, he and his brothers and sister were raised by their father. Their mother had left the family soon after Jim’s younger brother was born, after Jim’s father beat her up.

In Haiti, Jim’s family was very poor. Jim’s grandparents in Brooklyn saved up enough money to send for Jim, his dad, and his siblings. Jim was under the impression that America would look like the movie Home Alone. But his grandparents’ apartment complex in Brooklyn had a leaking ceiling, old paint peeling off thin walls, and rodents. The building’s elevator smelled like urine and was always getting stuck.

Besides his grandparents, the apartment was also home to Jim’s aunt; her boyfriend and her two kids; Jim; his brothers; his father; and Geraldine, his sister. They all crowded into several rooms, some sleeping on the floor.

Outside the apartment, Jim tried his best to assimilate into American culture and to escape poverty. When he wasn’t in school, he washed cars, unloaded furniture from trucks, and sold water bottles to drivers at stoplights. He shoveled snow, swept up hair at a barber shop, and washed and pressed shirts for a cleaning business in an unventilated basement.

All those jobs were legal, yet Jim still wasn’t safe. Although he never joined a gang, almost all his friends were Crips and seemed to make way more money than him doing illegal stuff. In 8th grade, Jim decided to go for the better money: by selling weed, using counterfeit bills, and stealing.

One of the older guys from the neighborhood, Frank, nicknamed him Buffet, after Warren Buffet, a Wall Street investor. Jim made it his street name and soon he was arrested for spray-painting “Buffet” all over a college in Brooklyn.

An Advocate

Jim’s assigned lawyer Christine surprised him by making eye contact, asking Jim questions, and listening to his answers. “She treated me like an individual, not as a case or a problem to be solved,” he writes.

During the court dates that followed, Christine looked out for Jim. If there was a long wait to see the judge, she gave him money for food and then for the train ride home. “She acted like I imagined a mother would act,” he writes.

I could relate to Jim’s warmth for Christine. When I was a kid in family court, my lawyer gave me snacks and books to read while we waited, and a MetroCard to get home. Through the chaos in the court building, I appreciated her kind actions towards me.

Christine got the judge to drop the case, but Jim went back to doing what he knew. At 15, he was arrested again, this time for selling crack. He faced up to seven years in prison. He spent a few weeks at the Spofford Juvenile Center in the Bronx, which he describes as “the real deal: heavy, locked doors; thick cement and cinder block; high walls with barbed wire; stoic staff; group showers.”

Boys Town

After Jim got locked up again, his family cut off all ties with him. Christine managed to get him placed into Boys Town, an alternative to incarceration program in Brooklyn that housed young offenders in a home-like setting in an attempt to change their lives around. The brownstone happened to be only a few subway stops away from his grandparents, though in a much wealthier neighborhood, Park Slope.

Between six and 12 young men lived there under the supervision of Damon and Iza Canada. A few other staff came in during the day.

image by Harper

Boys Town wasn’t jail, but there were rules. Staff added and subtracted points for good and bad behavior from a card that each boy carried with him at all times. Points were how privileges were determined. Jim recalls that, at first, the point system felt “oppressive.”

Looking back, he sees how it worked for the boys. “No matter our crimes or situations, we all had the same issue. We hadn’t been following the rules: at home, at school, in the world, so there was a precision to everything at Boys Town. The lining up, the constant asking of permission, the overly proper way we had to speak, especially towards authority figures. It was like a boot camp for my behavior.”

Christine introduced Jim to another mentor, the deputy attorney in her office, Marty. Meanwhile, Damon and Iza were role models around the clock. Jim and Damon often clashed, and Jim reflects on why: “Even though my mom was the one who left, I shared that sentiment: you don’t allow certain things from men. Every heated interaction was like a test of your manhood, even if it wasn’t.”

Drawn to College

Iza was in college. Jim would see her doing homework and asked her about college, a word he had never heard even though he was 16. Iza took him to her Manhattan campus, and Jim was entranced. “The freedom and independence was a palpable thing on the campus…. I wanted to be here.”

Since Jim didn’t have a high school diploma, he decided to get a GED. To get into the GED program, Jim had to undergo a series of evaluations and discovered he had significant learning disabilities, including ADHD. One of the GED program’s counselors contacted the Brooklyn Learning Center, which agreed to see Jim for free.

After Jim started the GED program, he took up a new habit, reading. Damon gave Jim a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “Seeing my own story through his was powerful. We both had been through troubled homes and the juvenile justice system,” he writes. Jim also loved Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama, who at the time was still a rising politician. Jim writes of the two, “These men are giants, and their very existence gave me a sense of who I wanted to be.”

As the end of Jim’s sentence approached, he made the decision to stay another year at Boys Town. He didn’t want to risk getting pulled back into the streets when he was doing so well for himself. With a tutor’s help, Jim went on to pass the GED test and enroll in college. Boys Town helped him pay for community college in Manhattan.

When Jim finally left Boys Town, he was 18 and done with his first college semester. Although he looked forward to going back home, he didn’t want to get sucked back into his old ways. He moved back to the same crowded apartment, which now housed even more people. Jim tried his best to focus on his education and his job at a supermarket.

OK to Ask

Even though Jim had changed, the neighborhood around him was still the same. During his first year home, he was stabbed in the chest at a party. The scar left a physical reminder of what could happen if he fell off track.

Jim got his associate’s degree and also received his American citizenship. He enrolled as an undergraduate at John Jay College in Manhattan, majoring in political science.

Towards the end of the memoir, Jim goes into depth on the topic of inequality. He draws connections back to a book he read in one of his classes, Unequal Childhoods, by Annette Lareau. “Its central thesis is that middle-class (usually white) families believe that systems were created explicitly for them,” he explains. In other words, middle-class families teach their children that it’s OK to ask questions and make demands from school, justice, and other systems. Poor families of color see those systems as the enemy, built to keep us down. As a consequence, these parents aren’t as involved in schools or the activities of their children.

Jim has contributed to a task force set up by President Obama and started his own nonprofit that mentors at-risk youth. He is inspiring, and his experience in the system means he can directly relate to the barriers many youth face today.

Although I appreciate the effort, it frustrates me when my caseworkers try to talk to me about subjects they have no experience with: having an incarcerated mother, building a relationship with my foster mother, separation from a sibling. In my 10 years in the foster care system, I encountered only one caseworker who came from a similar background, which made her easier to talk to. We need more advocates like her and like Jim St. Germain—living examples of hope for the future.

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(FCYU-2018-07-16)

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